Bold a prediction as this may be, I think it’s very likely that you’ll feel better about your life after you read this post than you do right now. Yes, even after just reading this first installment (the concept is too important and juicy to cover in only one). But no need to take my word for it, let’s go ahead and find out.
The Great Unknown.
That Which Hasn’t Happened (Yet).
Technically, the future is virtually spotless in regard to our thoughts, feelings and behaviors (and yes, you can choose to view it as an “eternal sunshine,” if you like, although recurrent precipitation is a given). And this fact is extremely liberating and empowering if we learn to truly embrace it. In other words, it can be a great relief to accept how much we don’t know about what will happen 5 minutes from now, tomorrow, next week, or in 5 years (after all, did you know 5 years ago exactly what you would be experiencing at this moment?). The fact is, we are notoriously inaccurate when it comes to predicting what we will think, feel or do in the future, and we are even worse at predicting about what others will think, feel or do, or about what will happen in the external world.
The most wonderful upside to this perspective (also known as reality) is that it provides us with a blank canvas on which to create and live our lives, one that allows a practically unlimited range of motion for imagining, thinking, and feeling. And from this place of possibility, we are not only freed from distressing thoughts and feelings about the future (which, again, doesn’t yet exist), but we are also more able to generate constructive behaviors that will bring us ever closer to our goals and desires. So, once we adopt this perspective of the future, it’s practically impossible to not think, feel and behave differently in this very moment. And this moment creates the next moment, which creates the next, and so on. String together enough of these moments, and you’ll find yourself in the future. And there really is no way to know what it will actually be like until it develops.
I am guessing that, so far, this perspective is sounding pretty good to you, as well it should. This is especially true if you, like so many of us, struggle with anxiety, ambivalence or worry about the future, and what you think it will bring. Unfortunately, we humans tend NOT to actually view the future in such a neutral to positive manner, particularly when we are viewing it through The Crystal Ball Lens (but one of the many Mindset Mood Lenses you are now learning about). It is far more common for us, when we are looking through this lens, to take that blank canvas, which is by definition loaded with uncertainty and ambiguity (synonyms for possibility), and to quickly fill it up with our unique, widely varying and habitual “predictions.” These habits of prediction don’t simply come out of nowhere to instantly appear on the blank canvas of the future (although the process may seem to occur automatically).
To that point, although a good 20% to 30% of our key personality traits are genetically determined, nobody pops out of the womb expecting catastrophe, hating themselves, or worrying obsessively; no, our habits of prediction (and the feelings and behaviors which follow) are first learned, primarily as a result of real life experiences. For example, let’s say that your anxious, angry, addicted, depressed or otherwise preoccupied primary caregiver was inconsistent in their functioning as you were growing up, that they terrified you with their fluctuations in mood or behavior, or that your wish for acceptance and harmony led you to become overly perfectionistic in your approach to life. These initial learning experiences of ours are then strengthened by the thoughts, feelings and behavior we go on to “practice” each day thereafter. Although we do certainly arrive in the world hard-wired to respond to perceived environmental threats to our survival and evolution (the “fight or flight response” is standard equipment, for good reason), the kinds of distortions and biases that fuel persistent anxiety, depression and anger (and the ways we learn to respond to these sensations) must come to us via our actual adventures on earth, through our early relationships with primary caregivers and others, and as a result of our subjective ways of thinking, feeling and behaving in response to these experiences.
And how, you might wonder, do we continue to “practice” and “strengthen” the tendencies we learned earlier in life? I will discuss some of the “what?” right now, and will address the “why?” and the “how?” in a moment. If we use some of the above examples of negative early learning experiences with the environment, we could make several guesses:
- First, the children who had to navigate around caregivers’ moodiness and erratic functioning might become adults who do everything possible to try to keep everyone else satisfied and calm, who avoid doing or saying anything to trigger discomfort in others or in themselves, or who try like mad to maintain an absolute “control” over themselves and their environment (and will ultimately get pissed off and exhausted from having to do so);
- Second, validation-craving children might become adults who obscure from external view any quality they think will lead to rejection or disapproval (and will ultimately get pissed off and exhausted from having to do so); and
- Third, the children exposed to harsh criticism might grow into adults who hold themselves to unrealistically high standard of performance (interpreting an A minus as failure…yes, “shades” of The Black And White Lens here too!) to avoid the negative evaluation of others or of themselves (and yes, will ultimately get pissed off and exhausted from having to do so).
Of course, these are but a few of the great many ways in which we may carry early experience into later life through repetitive practice. And this is done with full or partial awareness, or without any at all.
And now I will attempt to explain some of the “why?” and “how?”of the repetitive practice of negative predictions. In addition to the impact negative learning experiences in early life have on our perspective of the blank canvas of the future, we are further challenged in our attempts to neutralize the harmful effects of The Crystal Ball Lens by our tendency as humans to want certainty, predictability, and stability in our lives. And yes, this tendency also typically stems from early learning experience, and gets strengthened through practice. To illustrate how prevalent and varying these “preferences” are, I could now ask everyone reading this how you spontaneously reacted to the words “uncertainty and ambiguity” mentioned above, in terms of the thoughts, feelings or images that they triggered within you. Essentially, I am asking what you typically experience and project onto your own “blank canvas” when considering the terms “uncertainty and ambiguity.”
So ponder this for a quick moment, go with your “gut” versus your higher intellect, and consider these terms as they relate to your personal life and important relationships versus the weather, the color your neighbor will paint his house, or the next big sale at your local grocery store. I say this because we tend to be able to tolerate much more unpredictability in such mundane external circumstances than we do in matters of greater emotional and psychological relevance (well, most of us can, that is). And in response to this question, I believe I would get a variety of responses (okay, a poll is SO warranted here; please take a moment and respond to it now, before continuing on). I’ll wait for you to do this before proceeding.
Have you done it yet? Yes? Great, let’s move on.
So here is my prediction of the results from the poll; some portion of the responses will be neutral, some will be positive, and the majority, unfortunately, will probably be quite negative, laden with discomfort, fear, or tension. Of course, these negatively biased responses to “uncertainty and ambiguity” will be most common among those of us who have already developed such predispositions (and the truth is that these kinds of “training in fear” are practically synonymous with being human, which is why I am comfortable predicting the poll’s results). This is because, although there is nothing inherently meaningful about the terms “uncertainty and ambiguity,” most of us have learned to associate them with feelings of uneasiness and discomfort, and with the negative predictions that accompany them. And as the old saying goes, “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”
And it is precisely for this reason (a STRONG wish to avoid the discomfort that we associate with uncertainty and ambiguity) that so many of us actually WANT to quickly fill up that blank canvas, even if it is with the prediction of undesirable outcomes! This is because we commonly prefer “the hell we know” to that which we don’t, and because convincing ourselves that the future will be negative may actually offer at least temporary relief from our discomfort with the idea of uncertainty and ambiguity. Unpleasant as the certainty of a negative outcome may be, at least it’s something you can rely upon (even if it never comes true).
In addition, when we see ourselves actively “preparing” and “bracing” for the worst, we tend to believe that we will actually be better able to cope with the negative outcomes we are anticipating. I have worked with hundreds of anxious patients who believe that this state of perpetual, white-knuckled worry is truly preventing them from being blindsided by a horrible and catastrophic surprise (when, in reality, we cannot and should not get good at preventing changes and shifts in life..more on this later). Further, they usually come into treatment believing that is truly a good trade-off! So, although we may indeed get some small (and fleeting) degree of comfort from maintaining such a vigilant stance, the sadly natural cost of holding this perspective is an ongoing and pervasive sense of anxiety, demoralization, and frustration. In short, we choose to maintain CERTAIN present and ongoing unhappiness because we believe it will protect us from the even more devastating degree of misery we fear we MIGHT experience in the future were we to relinquish our vigilance.
To make matters worse, if we practice the vigilant and negatively predictive stance every day (as we tend to do with habits), we will just get better and better at conjuring it up, using it to fill the blank canvas, and experiencing the feelings, thoughts and behaviors that go with it. In this way, the negatively predictive stance becomes seemingly AUTOMATIC, and can therefore seem to emerge out of nowhere. As you can understand, however, the stance has been in training for a long time, and has become powerful and dominant as a result. Remember, we get better at whatever we practice, and we are always practicing something.
In further posts on The Crystal Ball Lens, we will discuss the results of the poll, talk further about how this biased perspective directly impacts and shapes our lives, and help you to better understand your own unique tendency to look through The Crystal Ball Lens and predict negative and distressing outcomes. Finally, and very importantly, we will review several extremely effective techniques from The Mindset Method that will help you to remove the lens altogether, or see through it in a more balanced, and neutral to positive way. I am very much looking forward to sharing this material with you!
In closing, my instruction to you is simply to begin developing an increasing awareness of your own tendency to look through The Crystal Ball Lens and make negative or distressing predictions about the future. See if you can notice yourself doing it, in the moment, whether you’ve been in the painful “spin-cycle” for minutes, hours, months, years, or forever. Once you do notice yourself engaging in this practice, I invite you to allow yourself to pause and just be aware of how it feels, physically and emotionally. You may then decide whether you would like to continue on that path or not. And please notice your inclination when given that option. Are you willing to let it dissipate or go away altogether? Or are you feeling determined to hold onto it, perhaps because you are fearful of loosening your habitual “grip” on your negative “certainty?” Take the time to gather some personal data on this and you will be able to apply it as you learn and grow with The Mindset Method.
As always, I thank you for reading this material, and wish you inner peace and friendliness with yourself.
Ah, I almost forgot! What shift did you notice in your mood as a result of reading this post? Do you think it had no effect, a slightly positive effect, or a negative effect? Okay, another poll coming at you!